03.21.13

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) President Obama’s Trip to the Middle East

Mr. President, President Obama arrived in the Middle East today.  It is his first visit as President to Israel and the West Bank. 

Some in the press have focused on the fact that the White House has lowered expectations for what will be accomplished in the three days of the President’s visit.  Others, including Members of Congress, have signed letters to the President.

Rather than prejudge what can be achieved by this trip or try to tie the President’s hands concerning the Middle East, I want to simply make a few straightforward points.

First, no one who knows the Middle East can honestly expect momentous accomplishments from a short visit like this, especially when the new Israeli government is still in the process of forming.  But despite that, it is very positive that the President is traveling to the region, and this is as good a time as any. 

Second, the peace process, as we have come to refer to it, between Israelis and Palestinians has been stalled for a dozen years.  In many ways the prospects for an end to the conflict are worse today than in the mid-1990s, and there is plenty of blame to go around.  Just traveling to Israel and the West Bank reaffirms this administration’s interest in helping the parties find ways to make progress on the key issues.  Ultimately, however, it is up to them – not the United States – to resolve their differences.

Third, it reaffirms President Obama’s longstanding support for Israel.  While during the presidential campaign there were shameful attempts to portray the President as somehow not committed enough, or supportive enough, of Israel, that was pure politics.  The record is abundantly clear that he has been, is – and, there is every reason to believe, will continue to be – a strong supporter of Israel.  Top Israeli officials have acknowledged this.   

That is not to say that we and the Israeli government are going to agree on every issue.  Israel and the United States share fundamental interests, but we are different countries and sometimes our interests diverge.  That is to be expected.   

Fourth, the President’s visit is an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to recognize that the status quo is unsustainable.  Maintaining this untenable limbo is neither in their interests nor in the interests of our great nation.  Unilateral actions by either side are harmful to the peace process.  Rhetoric that dehumanizes or demonizes the other is harmful.  Settlement construction in disputed territory is harmful.  Incitement to violence is harmful.  Both sides need to demonstrate that they want lasting peace through negotiations. 

The President will also visit Jordan, which is facing increasing pressure from the flood of Syrian refugees, an issue that concerns us all.  The Fiscal Year 2013 continuing resolution that is expected to pass the Senate this week includes additional assistance for Jordan and for Syria’s other neighbors to help address these needs.

And, of course, there are growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.  I believe the President has wisely proceeded with caution in the way his Administration has responded to this grave threat.  While some have urged the President to adopt a purely military policy toward Iran, the advice of our top military leaders is restraint.  We should exhaust other means at our disposal to try to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and to avoid another war in that part of the world.

Mr. President, I commend President Obama for traveling to the Middle East.  Real peace with enduring security between Israelis and Palestinians has long been and remains a key goal of the United States.  It is one toward which the Congress and the administration should work together. 

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